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We're in the midst of a 60-day moratorium on some controversial scientific research. Last month, scientists around the world agreed to temporarily halt certain genetic experiments with bird flu viruses. That was in response to a public outcry and fears that scientists had created dangerous new germs that could cause a devastating pandemic in people if they ever escape the lab. Later this week, a small group of experts is meeting at the World Health Organization in Geneva.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports they will grapple with the most urgent questions raised by these lab-created viruses.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Out in nature, a flu virus called H5N1 circulates among wild birds. This bird flu rarely makes people sick. But more than 500 have fallen ill and over half died. The virus doesn't really spread between people. Still, public health experts wondered: Could this bird flu ever evolve in a way that would make it contagious in humans?
To try to answer that question, scientists in the Netherlands recently did a lab experiment that altered genes in the virus. The result was a new germ that could pass between ferrets and kill them. And ferrets are the laboratory stand-in for people.
When some other experts saw these results, they said: Wow. If this virus ever escaped the lab or fell into the wrong hands, it could potentially cause a catastrophic pandemic.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We don't know yet how infectious this particular virus is to humans, what it would do once it were in humans from a clinical disease standpoint, but we have no margin for error here.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
OSTERHOLM: The bottom line is until we know exactly what the risk of what these viral agents mean, it would be foolish to not take this very seriously.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Osterholm serves on a committee that advises the government on biological research that could be misused.
Late last year, it reviewed this study and another one like it. The committee took the unprecedented step of recommending that some details of these studies not be made public, so no one could use them as recipes for new bioweapons.
That recommendation was the start of what's turning into a massive fight in the science community. Because some virologists say the potential risks have been vastly overstated. They bristle at the idea of putting restrictions on basic research aimed at improving public health. Vincent Racaniello is a virologist at Columbia University in New York.
VINCENT RACANIELLO: On a scientific basis, these experiments are worth doing and they're not dangerous. If you balance the danger versus the amount of information you get, I think my view is you go forward.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks other labs should repeat and build on the results, which should be published for all to see. And he disagrees with those who want to these viruses moved to super-secure labs - the kind of places that store smallpox and Ebola.
For now, scientists have stopped all experiments using these viruses. They've also stopped any genetic work that could create more like them. Publication is hold as well. Experts on each side of the debate have been writing pointed commentaries and arguing in public. Now, the World Health Organization is entering the fray.
KEIJI FUKUDA: The WHO was actually by a number of different parties, you know, will you become involved in the process and help try to facilitate a more global approach to the discussions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Keiji Fukuda is a WHO official and an expert on pandemic flu. He says 22 people have been invited to Geneva for a closed-door meeting. On Thursday and Friday, they'll discuss the most pressing issues.
FUKUDA: We have viruses which exist. We have manuscripts which have been written. We have a moratorium which was declared voluntarily by the researchers. And so, given all of that, you know, what are some of the practical steps that we can take?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At the meeting will be researchers directly involved in conducting the studies, experts who've reviewed the findings and editors who may publish the papers.
Bruce Alberts is editor-in-chief of the journal Science, which is considering publishing one of the flu reports. His deputy will attend the meeting. Alberts says its organizers want to let everyone there see the full manuscript by handing out paper copies that has to be returned at the end of the session.
BRUCE ALBERTS: So on the one hand, obviously, the international community has to know exactly what's involved. But on the other hand, we have to be careful about not jeopardizing the possibility to restrict the information.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One way of restricting the information would be to publish the research without key details, and devise a system to give the sensitive information only to legitimate researchers who need it. Top science officials in the U.S. government are now trying to create such a system. But Alberts says, making something like that work is going to have to be an international effort.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.